Classes, Levels, And Equipment For The RPG We Call A Startup
Updated: May 2
A campaign in most tabletop gaming platforms is a collection of games that follow a common storyline, usually with the same characters. Think of the lifecycle of a company founded to support a given innovation as similar to a campaign.
The campaign that inspired many a game like Dungeons and Dragons is JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In the trilogy, we follow a few characters, each inspiring different classes of characters in Dungeons and Dragons - and so in many modern computer games. None are as archetypal as Stryder, the ranger. We begin the campaign with him exploring the wild lands - much as a founder (or founding team) explores different industries (or aspects of a given horizontal or vertical market). Over time though, Stryder faces a choice, to turn into a paladin and put charisma over perception - taking his rightful place as the chief executive (or ruler of the lands if we extend the analogy) or to move on to the next adventure.
But Stryder doesn’t do it all alone. Nor can any founder who sets out to change the world by bringing an innovation to the masses. Adventuring alone is called writing, not playing. A brave adventuring party is formed. Just as our companies grow, the party then consists of many a utility player, each with their own set of skills they bring to the table. As they explore the path to save the world they encounter others with specialized skillsets. These are the basis of character classes in most modern role-playing games. Let’s look at the analogous relationships with those we’ll need in our startups:
Ranger: The ranger has traits from a few different classes. They have limited spell casting abilities, fighting abilities, and some roguish characteristics. As mentioned, most founders have to wear many hats and spend a lot of time perceiving our industries and so begin the campaign as a ranger. As we grow, rangers become product teams or corporate development, continuing to explore the wilds, looking for new opportunities to build new products.
Fighter: Fighters are grinders. The most common types of grinders in a startup campaign are those the build the product (in a software company these are software developers) and those who sell the product (sales teams). The fighters often become the “tanks” of a party, rushing into melee and fixing products or selling products to customers. They are often the core of a party - yet need support from lots of others for successful outcomes.
Cleric: The cleric is the healer. They keep the party healthy, bless their efforts, and protect them. Think of this as the Human Resources and pure management positions that emerge in organizations. As we get into later, management and leadership are quite different - thus the paladin.
Druid: The druid speaks with animals and communes with nature. They are mystical and support those communities as much as they draw power from them. We all live in a community. Those who support the product, especially early in the life of an organization, are building a community and even more - become the primary window with which the community around us perceives the organization.
Mage: Non-technical people often think of software developers as wizards. But in truth anyone who reaches a high level of performance in their specialty is a wizard. But the real magic in a company comes with operational excellence - which means that the mages are the operations team. These are the people charged with improving efficiency, getting everyone where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, and keeping the organization humming along.
Paladin: As mentioned, the paladin is often the leader of the party. These knightly characters have big armor, give inspiring speeches, and sometimes heal others. But they are there to lead and inspire the party. The paladin is much more pure about their mission that most in the party, which leads to something like a mission and values - which we cover in sections on mission statements and documenting values.
Monk: We might initially outsource accounting, but as we bring it internally, we need people we can trust. And people who will always do what is right. In Dungeons and Dragons, the monk is the moral compass for many parties.
Bard: We need people who can sing our praises and in doing so bring people to our way of thinking and into our circle. Marketers and evangelists are even more important in freemium types of SaaS offerings where an early sales team isn’t in the plan.
Rogue: Rogues nimbly find and remove the traps in dungeons. They can be played as thieves, but there isn’t much room for those in a company. Looking forward and creating an End User License Agreement that protects the party and reviewing contracts to find those traps is really where legal and then corporate compliance teams shine.
Illusionist: As the party grows, we take on new specialties. Public Relations is a discipline that often comes as an addition in larger adventuring parties and helps to present the organization to the outside world in a number of ways. The most common is through interfacing with the media to project the adventuring party in a way that aligns with the mission and values.
The combinations of these classes is so much more valuable than each alone. Such it is with organizations. Each character gains experience as we go through encounters and games. With experience come new abilities. Most games use a leveling game mechanic to track these in a quantifiable fashion. As organizations grow, we institute leveling mechanics as well. It begins with just acknowledging that someone did more, maybe going from Engineer to Architect. Sometimes, as the organization matures, we level within titles, such as Software Developer I and Software Developer II. As we mature to our stages as individuals, we are capable of more.
This doesn’t tell the whole story. The founders, like the lone ranger in the beginning of Lord of the Rings, is out there doing what they do - exploring and understanding the lands. As each class, or discipline, goes from being a part of a founders job to a job to a department, the discipline has a level of its own. The individuals grow but so too grows the maturity of the disciplines and number of individuals involved in each. In fact, there are plenty of consulting firms dedicated to helping level up each department, or discipline.
We can go a step further than most games do with leveling. Since the birth of venture capital with Georges Doriot, assembly lines of companies have emerged. We begin with an idea, bootstrap a product or prototype, get financial assistance to go to market from banks or angel investors, move into a Series A of funding, then Series B, and then Series C through F. The campaign ends (and maybe a new begins) as we get to an IPO or acquisition. Almost as though the organization itself began at Level 1 when we incorporated and ended at Level 10 at the IPO.
We also equip our characters. Each typically has a weapon and armor - just as the company supplies computers and desks. But as we level up we also find magical items or new objects we can wield in different ways. Much as we pay for software to automate various aspects of our jobs to make us more productive.
Our paths are not certain. The dungeon master of life may have plans - but we can go our own way. However, before veering off the path set out for us in the canned campaigns provided throughout the startup world, we should understand the traditions and norms and what others do and why. This allows us to be intentional about our activities and keep our eyes out for keen adventurers we’d like to conquer a dungeon or three with. Otherwise we end up hiring or architecting reactively and when that happens, who knows where the games will lead us or what other game mechanics we didn't even know we needed to know about!